‘Adventure Time’ Interview: Creator Pendleton Ward and Star Tom Kenny
For the uninitiated, 'Adventure Time' is a very funny and whimsical animated series on the Cartoon Network about a human boy named Finn and his adopted brother, Jake the dog, and their many epic adventures in the post-apocalyptic, magical Land of Ooo. We had a chance to sit down with series creator Pendleton Ward and voice actor Tom Kenny to discuss the show, success, what inspires them and when we'll finally see that 'Adventure Time' video game they've been working on.
The pair were in town for the opening of the 'Adventure Time' show at the new Mondo gallery in Austin and the 'Adventure Time' feast, hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse. Our interview takes place next door at the Alamo's Highball lounge, where Tom Kenny hilariously almost hijacks the interview.
Some of the best animated works are those that are subversive, where the humor and characters can appeal to both children and adults alike. How do you straddle the line between what appeals to children and adults? Is it something you're conscious of when writing the episodes?
Pendleton Ward: I'm never trying to do anything. I'm just trying to make it funny. That's all that I'm ever thinking about, is trying to make it fun and interesting for everyone to work on. I never think about it.
Tom Kenny: So you never feel like you have to consciously... Like, if I had my druthers I'd do a more scatalogical version of this, but I gotta pull it back because it's a kid show...
TK: You never think like that?
PW: No. I wanted to make a kids' show. I wanted to make a show that was safe for kids to watch, that kids would be into. I'm not interested in doing anything more adult or anything. But there are a lot of adult themes, like Jake sees his own death in an episode and contemplates that and it's really sad. And Finn doesn't want him to die, and Jake's like, "You just have to deal with it, it's a part of life," when Jake's talking about it to Finn. So we've done some heavy themes, which are fun for me because I like dark humor. I'm just rambling on...
It's good! So what was your inspiration for the series? What was the genesis of the particular story and characters in 'Adventure Time'?
PW: I just pooped it out. It just came out of my sketchbook. I was pitching ideas left and right, trying to get anything sold. My plan was to just sell it and then make it good after I sold it.
TK: So where was 'Adventure Time' in order of pitch? Was it your first thing that you threw at them?
PW: It was the first thing.
TK: Did you... Can I ask this question? Britt, shut up!
TK: Is that because you had an inherent sense that that was the most commercial thing in the sketchbook?
TK: The easiest sell?
PW: No, I just lucked out on that one, I think. One of the ideas that came after that I pitched a small idea to Frederator called "Pita," and it was a little British boy who went to a father and son workday, and his dad was a boss, so when he went into work he was acting like his dad and bossing all the other kids around, and there was a lot of jokes about England. I don't know anything about England. Like the clock had Queen Elizabeth in it, and it was like, ticking over her face, I don't know.
TK: Was 'Adventure Time' the nearest and dearest to your heart of the things that you pitched that day, and I'll take my answer on the air, thank you.
PW: Yeah, I liked it a lot. It definitely was the nearest and dearest because I love Dungeons and Dragons, and that's what sort of came out of most of these.
Tom, can you talk about how you got involved? Were you a fan prior to being cast, or were you approached without any knowledge of what you were getting into?
TK: I actually was, as were most people working in animation because they had done the pilot short -- was that done for Nickelodeon or at Nickelodeon?
PW: It was at Nickelodeon.
TK: It was one of those things that everyone was talking about, you know, "Have you seen that 'Adventure Time' thing?!" It was the kind of thing that people would take pleasure in turning you onto, like Derek Drymon and Stephen Hillenburg, the creators of 'Spongebob Squarepants,' were like, "I know the kind of stuff you like, have you seen 'Adventure Time'? You've gotta see the 'Adventure Time' pilot." Nick Jennings, you know, a lot of people who went on to work on the show, on 'Adventure Time.' Also my kid was super into it and his friends were some of those people that caused the pilot to get a bazillion hits on YouTube. They would just watch it over and over, and it spoke to them in a way that was above and beyond most stuff that they like. They liked it more than they usually... You know, there's stuff you like, and then stuff you like like, as a kid, and you don't even know why. For some reason that spoke to them, and I watched their reaction and I was like, wow, you know, there's something special here. I don't know if it's the relationship between Jake and Finn, or the silliness, or Abe Lincoln on Mars, or the surrealness of it -- they were just in the sweet spot with it where they were not quite old enough for 'Family Guy,' kind of more scatalogical shows, but obviously too old for PBS kids kind of fare, so this I think had that kind of Monty Python craziness and surrealness, and gameplay stuff that was very much of their world.
I think it speaks to kids really well in that way, too because they have that very stream-of-consciousness way of behaving. There's no inhibitions, they just make weird sounds and have these seemingly senseless ways they move about. They just do without thinking, which is part of the wonder and fun of being a kid.
TK: Exactly! Absolutely. It's like if you leave a kid alone with a bunch of action figures or whatever, these are the kinds of stories they'd be making up.
Pendleton, did you seek Tom out specifically, or was their an audition process?
PW: We auditioned for Ice King at one point, and Tom was amazing.
TK: I really wanted to be that guy. I felt like I really understand this guy, you know? I wanna be this guy. As an actor you just audition for stuff all the time, it's the job description. You audition for stuff and most stuff you don't get, and some stuff you do, and you hope that you wind up not living in a cardboard box under a bridge, ultimately. You just wanna be working on as much stuff as you can, and then some stuff is, you know, you're glad to be on it but it's very cut and dry, and then some stuff has a little more of a special feel to it. For me from the beginning, from the audition, 'Adventure Time' totally had that. I got it, and part of that was being able to watch my kid and his friends get it and go wow, this is like, special.
What are the things that inspire both of you? For Tom, who or what inspires your voice work, and Pendleton, what inspires you creatively?
PW: Oh man. That's tough. Tom, why don't you go first?
TK: Well you've talked about video games and stuff like that, where the gameplay was less interesting to you than the worlds that the characters inhabited in the games.
PW: Yeah. Well, actually games aren't... I think what inspires me really is just to create. I have an urge to create something successful, and I don't know why.
TK: Successful in a commercial sense?
PW: Yeah, in a commercial sense.
PW: Yeah. I don't know why. At one point I was just trying to sell the worst idea I could think of, and that to me was like a challenge I wanted to take on. It was called 'Secret Agent Grandma' and it was a really dumb idea and I didn't like it, and I was throwing all these hacky ideas into it, and I just wanted to sell it to see if I could sell it.
TK: Performance art. Andy Kaufman.
PW: Yeah. I was making my friend Pat McHale work on it with me. He was my writing partner, and he got...
TK: Knowing that what you were creating was utterly sh--ty?
PW: Yeah. At one point...
TK: It's just utterly sh--ty enough to work!
PW: He got so mad at me at one point for pushing this idea onto us as a team, that he walked out...
TK: Do you think that will ever find its way into 'Adventure Time'? The grandma character?
PW: No, I've moved on to trying to make something...
TK: You've moved on!
PW: Something really great.
We will never see the secret agent grandma!
PW: But I think there is a cartoon, I looked it up, I just Googled the name the other day and found something else, but I'm sure that's way better than whatever I was doing.
TK: For me the fact that I make a living doing voices for animated characters still is incredible to me. I keep waiting to get caught or for it to end, and have to become an insurance actuary or whatever. All of that stuff you enjoyed as a kid, every cartoon and weirdo movies and comic books, most of the stuff that these grown ups around you thought was a waste of time, and were vocal about telling you that you probably shouldn't be spending so much time doing this stuff, is the reason that you develop this skill set that gives you a job that you don't despise. It's kind of great.
SC: Has there been any progress with the 'Adventure Time' video game you're developing for the Nintendo DS? Any new details you can share?
PW: Oh! Well, I just finished writing a script for it. And that's about as far as it's gotten at this point.
TK: You've written a script!